I came of age with Eliot Porter. Not literally of course. Rather, my adolescence and young adulthood were accompanied by his books and photos. He taught me how to look. Even now, his photographs influence my writing and visual work.
A few weeks ago we were in Downeast Maine, north of Bar Harbor. Every few days we drove south, down Penobscot County way. Eliot Porter spent much time in the Penobscot region, as well as out West. Out West, his photos were panoramic. Downeast, they were more intimate, capturing a brook, leaf, or pod of berries. If memory serves me, his iconic book and homage to Thoreau, In Wilderness is the Preservation of the Earth, drew heavily from his Penobscot experience.
People tend to think of wilderness as vast tracks of untouched ecosystems. Yet in our time, there are few such places. Climate change and other forms of pollution reach the farthermost corners of the earth. Here, in North America, fossil fuel mining takes place in the midst of former wildlands. Our population has grown so large that we fill the back country with people on many weekends.
The elders taught me to treasure wilderness, and to remember there is another wilderness, the one that lies within each of us. Those vast spaces can be imposing, even terrible, in their beauty and harshness. I was taught there is another danger in focusing on the wilderness inside us: we may ignore the needs of the Planet that supports us, and the innumerable beings that accompany us. To successfully journey into wilderness requires forethought and balance.
For many, the inner wilderness seems most inaccessible, even dangerous. There are daemons within, and sea monsters, waiting to devour us. As shamans everywhere have long known, there is also the ever present threat of madness. Yet there is also the promise of renewal.
Shamans journey into this wilderness to seek aid for others, to return souls to their owners, and to accompany the dead to the other world. They travel for visions of the future, to learn where game will be tomorrow, and to correct imbalances in the world, imbalances most often created by people. Sometimes shamans travel and fail to return home; this is a always a risk.
When Europeans arrived in the Americas, they brought imbalance to our people in the form of illness, alcohol, and social chaos. Faced with this, the shamans and Medicine people sought cures in the inner and the everyday worlds. They were resourceful and connected to the spirits of things, and were often successful in finding ways to heal those afflicted. Yet, eventually, the sheer volume on illness overwhelmed many of our cultures, killing great numbers of healers as they cared for others. Much knowledge was lost in those dark days.
Downeast, Eliot Porter focused on the small, the everyday. He reminded us that wilderness is a matter of scale and attention, that we can find wilderness wherever we are. We can, in turn, look closely at the minutia of the world around us, journey deep into the forest, or turn inward. Sometimes we do all these, simultaneously. Such moments form a sort of vision quest.
Eliot Porter taught me that as we look through the camera’s lens, we sharpen our attention, and open to the magic of the unexpected. Perhaps, for just a moment, we discover ourselves reflected in the world around us, and are returned to primal wholeness and balance. In such moments we may know that we are the salmon swimming home to reproduce and die, the leaves settling into the litter, preparing to nurture the next generation, or the eagle that flies above the world, capturing visions of wholeness. Then we may understand that wilderness is indeed the preservation of the world, and of the soul.
– Michael Watson
© 2014, essay and photographs, Michael Watson, All rights reserved